Amnesty International: is it true to its mission?

Amnesty International has a moral mission: ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’. Could that be an impossible mission for an organisation that calls for military intervention on human rights grounds? This question arises from an attempt to understand Amnesty International’s role in the war in Syria.


Critics have argued that by justifying military action against the legitimate government of Syria, Amnesty International was complicit in producing an avoidable humanitarian catastrophe:[1] this is not to say those state powers seeking regime change in Syria waited on Amnesty’s blessing; but their action was lent legitimacy in the public’s eyes by Amnesty’s clear support for it.

Whatever one thinks of the criticism, I believe we have reason enough to ask: did Amnesty International do more harm than good for human rights in Syria?

That will be the question for my next blog, but I meanwhile have something to say as a prelude to that fuller inquiry.

As a decades-long supporter of Amnesty International, I would never wish to undermine its moral mission. As a troubled observer, though, I have concerns about how Amnesty pursued its mission in Syria (and recently I suspended my support for that reason). As an investigative philosopher, I believe the problem can usefully be analysed by reference to the mission itself.

Amnesty’s mission – ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’ – is perhaps really not one mission, but four:

– to undertake research focused on ending grave abuses

– to undertake action focused on ending grave abuses

– to undertake research focused on preventing grave abuses

– to undertake action focused on preventing grave abuses.

The two undertakings focused on ending abuses were foundational for Amnesty International. To identify and bear witness to cases of wrongful arrest and inhumane treatment, particularly of prisoners of conscience, was the original research aim, as most supporters understood it. The findings of the research were then the basis of actions aimed at putting public moral pressure on the perpetrators to end the abuse. There are limits to the effectiveness of moral pressure, to be sure, and there has always been debate within Amnesty about its stance towards more forceful kinds of persuasion. Such debates can be difficult ones. But difficult is not the same as impossible.

The third undertaking is not impossible either: a competent research team can engage in investigations aiming to identify impending threats to human rights. It is perfectly possible to engage in research so focused, although whether the findings will be proven correct, of course, is quite another matter. The nature of the research will centrally involve the methods and approaches of social scientists, and this sort of research does not generate exact predictions. If the third undertaking is difficult rather than impossible, though, it is because of its relatively modest ambition. It is modest in relation, specifically, to the fourth.


The fourth undertaking, ‘action focused on preventing grave abuses’ could mean wildly different things. Simply doing research into causes of potential abuses might be regarded as a kind of action; it is certainly an activity. On a starkly contrasting interpretation, the action could be very decisive and material. Even military intervention is included under a hawkish interpretation of action focused on a purported responsibility to protect against grave abuses.[2]

So which interpretation should be taken to define Amnesty’s mission?  I dare say some supporters of the organisation may assume its moral mission does not include the promotion of harmful force. Yet the interpretation allowed by the organisation today does not preclude even the promotion of war.

In allowing that interpretation, Amnesty International must answer the question of what ethical criteria, exactly, it invokes when it decides whether to advocate for a war.

I think this is an impossible question in a practical sense because every specific context in which it would arise will have myriad distinctive complexities, as well as uncertainties and imponderables. Any general guidelines set out in advance will need to be adapted to the specific case, which means you’d need to have criteria for permissible adaptations, and then guidelines for them, and so on.

It is also impossible in a more fundamental moral sense: for the question is about the conditions under which action focused on preventing grave abuses of human rights can permissibly violate human rights. I believe Amnesty International’s ordinary members and supporters generally think the organisation should not be in the business of assessing which human rights violations are permissible. They will assume that none are. If I am right in the reasoning here, then, by allowing a hawkish interpretation of its fourth undertaking, Amnesty renders its own mission impossible.

I wonder if the millions of ordinary honest men, women and children who support the moral mission of Amnesty International might want to think about taking a stand in relation to the organisation itself.

In my next blog, I shall turn to a question that might encourage that thinking. It is the question that prompted these preliminary thoughts: how well has Amnesty International fulfilled the overarching moral imperative of protecting people’s human rights in Syria?


[1] Full references for the relevant criticisms will be provided in the main discussion that will follow in the next blog. Here I would just like to thank those who, following my recent discussion of the testimony of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Syria, encouraged me to press a related question about Amnesty International. The fellow investigators I’ve learned a great deal from are numerous, but I’d like to mention particularly Tim Anderson, Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Patrick J. Boyle, Jean Bricmont, Tony Cartalucci, Adrian D., Joe Emersberger, Jan Oberg, Gunnar Øyro, Rick Sterling.

[2] See, for instance, the paper by Suzanne Nossel who, at the time of its publication, was Director of Amnesty International USA, ‘Advancing Human Rights in the UN System’, IIGG (International Institutions and Global Governance Program) Working paper May 2012.

This entry was posted in Amnesty International, disinformation, global justice, human rights, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Amnesty International: is it true to its mission?

  1. Pingback: Amnesty International’s War Crimes in Syria | Tim Hayward

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  7. Mariko Siegert, M.A. says:

    Dear Tim,

    Thank you for this post. I was reading another one written by you yesterday and I am glad to see someone questioning the legitimacy of AI with convincing analyses.

    I have had doubts about AI because of its reports on the situation in Libya. AI, as well as Human Rights Watch, initially reported that Gaddafi had not been committing crimes against humanity or war crimes against Libyan citizens but it was the rebel soldiers who were killing the civilians. Later on, AI changed its claims and reported that Gaddafi indeed had been killing Libyan citizens when NATO intervened after the swift decision-making done by the UNSC. I wonder if there were any motivations behind the publication of the initial report or of its revision. There are several peer-reviewed journal articles written based on AI’s initial report on the innocence of Gaddafi, which I would assume have caused negative consequences in academia and probably in foreign policy discourses.

    I have also been questioning AI’s ethical stance. I think AI has been sharing my personal information with other liberal organizations, and also its use and treatment of canvassers in major U.S. cities suggest its lack of adherence to the ethical standards. This is contradictory to its missions. I used to support AI, but now I do not think I can trust it.

    • timhayward says:

      Thanks very much for these comments Mariko. What you say about peer-reviewed articles accepting testimony from this kind of source is a problem that I think academics need to be more alert to. (If you have particular examples and references, and it’s not too inconvenient, I’d appreciate your sharing them.) I am really concerned myself that academia, instead of providing rigorous checking of claims is becoming an instrument for the dissemination (mostly unwittingly, I hope) of approved messages.

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  9. Kathy Heyne says:

    Thank you so much for this, Tim. I hadn’t read AI’s four purposes before, but now that I have done so I’m doubly perplexed why AI doesn’t report on the human rights abuses caused by forcing privatisation of national assets and austerity measures on people all around the world. There’s certainly ample evidence hat one leads to the other.

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